Beyond Moonshots with Alan Stern (NASA) | Disrupt SF (Day 1)
2:17AM Sep 6, 2018
So we're going to have a fantastic session now with Devin cold away one of the most I love his voice when you listen to His voice is gorgeous. He's a writer with TechCrunch, and he's going to be interviewing Alan stern. Now, Alan has overseen ambitious projects from NASA's New Horizons Pluto mission to the moon expresses attempt at a privately developed lunar landing. We're going to hear now, what's next for interplanetary exploration and commercialization from an aerospace veteran. Big round of applause, please, for Alan and Devin.
Great. Well, thanks for joining us today. Alan definitely. So as as Mike introduce you is that you've been in the space industry practically since you were a kid.
So that means you've seen such incredible changes over the last couple of decades, what
do you think is the biggest change that you've observed that has resulted in this vibrant new space industry that we're all witnessing the sea change really is the development of commercial spaceflight. It used to be that it took entire superpowers to organize spaceflight, when the technology was primitive. And it took hundreds of thousands of people to do something like Apollo. But today, even startup companies can put things in space. And that's opening the door to a revolution in our access to space and the ways that we use it. Is it just the commercial aspect? Or is it the, you know, more launches, cheaper launches, cheaper components, you know, just more people getting into space from different disciplines? Well, what's happened is, is very simple. It's innovation innovation. In the launch business, you see SpaceX, for example, leading, but in the development of reusable rockets, which are going to bring costs so far down, that it opens up access at new price points. So that new applications we could never before for to do can be done. And then there's innovation on the orbital side, there's innovation in the stratosphere, there's innovation on the planetary exploration side, it really is feeling like we ought to think of space in the next decade. Is the roaring 20s we would the Falcon Heavy launch. I wasn't, but I saw it, it was fantastic. It was I was there was fabulous. So is there is there anything that has just never changed in space? Like if you were in a Mission Control Room 30 years ago? Is there anything that's just the same thing? Now you're just like, Well, some things never change? Well, unfortunately, access to space for humans is still rare. And but even that I think is going to change in the next decade is space tourism comes online and commercial space, flat forums, even commercial lunar exploration,
but in the last 50 years, we've been very slow to develop human spaceflight compared to some of the other applications.
Why do you think that is? Is it just is it a risk aversion is simply that we want to do it we want to be 100% sure we want to or we want limited. So what do you think is the reason part of
its psychological the time wasn't right, to be able to have the capital formation to have commercial space companies. And access to space through government means has been very limited. But part of it's also the human spaceflight, it's harder because we want to be careful, we can't, we can't afford for the mission to fail. And so it's taken longer to bring that to the commercial for than it did things like communication satellites that were easy enough to do in the 60s and 70s,
but we are going to be doing some space tourism fairly soon. I know you're a big proponent of this right now. Yeah, you don't think it's a huge, big scam, they're just gonna take the money and run and be like, Oh, actually, our rocket doesn't work. Well, they better not since I have three tickets on virgin. Well,
so. But, you know, there's already been a little bit of space tourism. In fact, that started in the 1990s when a company had a contest and flew a British woman named Helen Sharman up to the Soviet Mir space station. And then in the 2000s Space Adventures, flew nine space tourists up to the ISS. The beginning next year, we should see companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic beginning to fly flights of suborbital space tourism with half a dozen people at a time. And I think that'll be very exciting. It's extraordinary, isn't it is the kind of thing that we've heard about for years and years, and then they say, launched in 2018, 2019, 2020,
but those are right around the corner. And soon we're going to actually be seeing the actually going to do it. I think that that that's just incredible, isn't it? Would you could you believe that that was actually going to happen when you were, you know, scraping out orbital mechanics on the on a paper notebook in the 80s or 90s, you know, I was back then hoping to happen a lot sooner. It's taken a long time and I'm ready for it. And I think everybody else's do well. Yeah, well, you've sent something you sent a lot of things into space, but you've never been yourself What do you think when you when you get up there when across the Carmen line and look out and see the curvature of the earth? Like, are you going to go crazy, you're going to laugh and cry and start writing a new book?
Well, it actually I'm going as a researcher with experiments using telescopes and microgravity experiments. So, so I'm there to work. And hopefully I will go crazy. I'll get my job done so that we can fly more flights. Well, and speaking of your science, obviously, you were, you are still the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission, right? It's a Pluto, which you guys have not. I mean, it was hard to avoid the news about New Horizons when it was doing its flyby of Pluto because such fabulous imagery, but you started looking at a Pluto mission when you were in grad school. Is that right? Yeah, there
was a group of us young professors and graduate students who wanted to do
in the first exploration of what we call the last planet Yeah, in, in the, in our parents, generation of scientists, the first missions to Mars and Venus, Jupiter, etc. The with the most prized missions to get on. But by the time that I got in the graduate school, it had all been done all the way out to Neptune. And Pluto was really the last train to Clarksville for us, the last chance, the only chance for our generation to be able to lead a first mission to a to a new planet. And it took a long time. But eventually we raised a billion dollars, and we built a spacecraft. And we flew it across the solar system. Yeah,
and it's still flying. And, and you actually wrote this book about it, chasing New Horizons, which I've read not all of yet. I'm still like, halfway through, but it's really interesting. The it seems like
maybe I'm not doing it justice. But the bureaucracy sounds as challenging as the the actual math and hardware is it like because it seems like they were constant barriers and people saying no, we should be doing this mission This mission is that was it? Was this whole mission and nail biter did it almost not happen? 100 times.
I often say if, if Pluto had put a mission have been a cat, it would have been dead long ago. Because cats only getting on lives. And you're right. Absolutely right. You know, in this book, we tried to describe what it was really like to try to start from scratch, do it yourself, figure out how to raise a billion dollars and get to the top of the priority queue at NASA. And how many reversals there were in setbacks and how much persistence took and how many times something out of the blue set us back. But ultimately, because we really did have a good case, and because we stuck with it a lot like in startup, we did get to fulfill our dream, we did get to compete and when the project and then ultimately built in flight across the solar system, and get the data that has been so spectacular. Yeah, it is.
It is wonderful. And I think what's what I've, what I found surprising here is that the it's not it's not faceless bureaucracy, it's all these strong personalities. And it's they weren't opposing it because they hate Pluto. They were opposing it because they're like, Well, no, we should be doing a big mission. Another mission to Neptune or, you know, Enceladus or whatever. So are there any, like strong personalities that you were particularly remember as being influential, either in thwarting or advancing the Pluto cars? Yeah, I
can think of one right away, which is a back in the early or mid 90s, we were at a meeting and we're making the case for why we should explore Pluto and the senior people of the day were against it, because it would take so long as a project to do and they felt like
it would happen after their career horizon. One scientist said to me in a in a big committee meeting. Yeah, but everybody would be dead in 2015.
And just at that point, one of the most senior scientists in the room, a professor at the University of Arizona and named Don huntin, a national academy member slammed his fist down on the table, and in a very deep voice said, God damn it. I don't expect to be alive in 2015. And if I am alive, I probably won't be aware of the
but and then he explained why the country should do this. And he turned the tide.
So you had based you had a couple of chances to launch but there are a couple years apart, you ended up launching in 2006, right. But if you didn't make that date, if there was if he was, I don't know, if it was cloudy or something, probably clouds are not a problem. But if you didn't make that that you would have to wait a decade before launching again, that might have just put a kibosh on the whole thing that seems like a lot of pressure. How do you how do you keep a team motivated? Is it is it like, Is it like a sword of Damocles hanging over you? Or is it a motivating pressure to say, like, Look, we've got this hard date this is our opportunity to make history or is everybody freaking out? No, actually,
we have the best team on New Horizons, people really wanted to be part of this mission. Because it was unlike any other in our generation, as I said a little earlier, to be part of first mission to explore a new planet. And so we have the pick of the litter in terms of the engineering talent, the mission operations, talent, the science team, everybody, and that a team was ready to go and was completely prepared to get us launched in our one three week launch window in 2006, and it worked on was motivating. Yeah,
But nowadays, the launch cadence has increased so much with like SpaceX, and I'm talking with Peter back from rocket lab later today. He wants to have a rocket going up every week, at some point. It's like, what does that enable, like, when we move from that if we don't do this, we can't do it for 10 years to if we don't do this. Well, we'll try it again. And June. How does it how does that change the entire space equation? Well,
you tell Peter that I want to see not a launch a week or a launch day, but a launch an hour and I'd be like airports, we got to be able to use space to cut down travel times that you can go anywhere on the planet in 45 minutes, come back the same day, go to your meeting in Sydney and then you're back by using a suborbital rocket that can travel at literally Mach 10 to Mach 15, we ought to be able to use space to put a million people at work mining asteroids so that we don't have to mind the earth and creating energy off planet and beaming it back to the earth so that we can help solve some of our environmental problems. space has so many applications to be transformative, not just about how we view our planet and how we communicate with one another. But how we become a multi planet species. I think where we are right now, at the beginning of this century is we're Star Trek begins.
Mm hmm. And where do we where do you think that actually begins? In practical terms as like, where the startups Where are the the government programs, the technologies like what are what should we be keeping an eye out for the Star Trek, like, we're not going to go straight to transporters and phasers you know we haven't developed a cloaking technology that I know of, although I guess I wouldn't know if we had but what do we what should we keep an eye out for watch watch Virgin Galactic watch Blue Origin,
watch other launch startups like vector that are going to be launching at very high rates. Within just a matter of a few years, I hope to see suborbital tourism, flying at a rate of once a day by the early 2020s, and then watch for the companies that come on stage that aren't here. Now, we don't know what's going to be around the corner. But when the analogous thing happened a century ago, when air travel went from Raider routine in the 1920s, literally dozens. And then hundreds of airlines were started and most failed. But some became united and American Airlines and others that we know today. And they completely transformed people's lives by making travel much more accessible by bring prices down the word, almost anybody can do it by becoming astronomically more safe than early flying. And I think we'll see the same thing and spaceflight over the 10 to 20 years.
What about some of the things that you're working on? Because I know you you were a lot of hats when I was I was reading through your, your sort of, you're the director of this, and you're a chair here and you're still API on New Horizons, what are some of the things that you're working on the you're excited about?
Well, the two most exciting things right now are the next flyby for New Horizons a billion miles beyond Pluto on New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day ultimate, truly ultimate to this is a an ancient building block of planets like Pluto formed 4 billion years ago. It's been out there and this deep freeze almost an absolute zero the entire time, it's a time capsule and we're gonna fly by it and try to learn what the early solar system was like with our cameras and spectrometers. We just acquired it with our cameras two weeks ago yeah we're starting the homie maneuvers our first engine firing to home in is on October 3, and will arrive, as I said on New Year's Eve and flyby on New Year's Day. And I'm super we're excited about that that will be the most distant exploration of any world in the history of that only spaceflight. But of course, in the history of human exploration, and I don't think anybody will top that for a long time. because nobody's planning another mission to go out fundamentally would take several years to get our entire team is completely jazz to do that. In fact, this afternoon, I'm going to fly to the Baltimore and we have a mission simulation for three days starting tomorrow of the entire flyby with almost 100 people involved so that we can get this right. I'm also very excited about doing research and space and trying to open up new opportunities to do that. We have a new NASA Administrator, Jim Brighton, Stein, very lean forward on commercial applications in space on using commercial space as a tool so that NASA can do more, you know, 10 years ago, NASA was, I think, a little afraid of commercial space because they thought they on the entire stage. Yeah, but now they see that with commercial we can actually accomplish more and government can be more leveraged. And I'm really excited about that. I'm excited about a startup that I'm involved in called worldview which is pioneering stratospheric ballooning for all kinds of Earth applications disaster recovery reconnaissance purposes and eventually for low altitude space tourism.
So on the on the new New Horizons flyby to ultimately I just love saying that
what it's mind boggling to me is that this was all in a way planned from the starts that this was always a possibility you guys didn't see New Horizons flying out there be like, well, let's go to the Kuiper Belt and see some asteroids.
But I'm also curious. So you've got this like long term plan. But you also have to integrate technology, the latest technology that you can before you have to lock it in. And what's the there seems like there's a tension there between having the latest technology and having to plan a mission 1520 years out? Well, for a mission like New Horizons, where you're sending only one spacecraft with no backup on a very long journey,
we don't want to use the latest technology, we want to use things that are tried and proven. So for example, the thrusters that we use on New Horizons are the same thrusters that are on voyagers that have been launched 25 years before, but they've been operating for 25 years. And so that gave us a lot of confidence in those systems. And across the board. We try to use heritage components so that we could reduce the risk of failure. Of course, if you built another new horizons today, it would have more advanced components, because another dozen years is taking place for the technology to move along. What do
you think those changes are? Like? What are the the new parts that you would be integrating into New Horizons? Like if you were building it today? Maybe you'd use those same thrusters. Because if they work for Voyager, yeah, yeah. But, you know, maybe a better camera or the radio, the antennas could be smaller, lighter, what would you change? Well, the
technology has come along in a lot of ways. And you could build much smaller spacecraft now, and therefore, launch them at higher speed and get there a lot a lot sooner or go even farther. And I think that that's an advanced that we'd like to actually exploit in the next decade to go back to the Kuiper Belt and do exploration of other small planets, like Pluto.
So what about what about asteroid mining and stuff like that? We mentioned this earlier, I just think it's, it's such a fascinating thing that you use, and you see it essentially as a, an ecological benefit as well. It's not just, oh, well, now, we have unlimited, you know, nickel, or whatever we can bring back. But it's it's job opportunities. It's no more strip mines in, you know, South America, that kind of thing. How do you think we're going to go about this, this new weirdo business? There's like, total Space Age stuff. Yeah,
yeah, I'm not sure how we're going to go about that. I think that would probably start with lunar mining, because it's closer. And because it's a gravity field. You know, asteroids are so small, the ones that you want to mind that it's like operating in a weightless environment. But on the moon is actually gravity. So you can put things down, you can mine and conventional way of this. And it's right around the corner. It's a three day flight to the moon and back. Whereas asteroids can be weeks of travel time away. And that means weeks, for every cycle, when you want to bring or refined or is back the moon is so much closer, it seems like the way to go first. And there are companies that are forming around mining ice at the lunar poles, which can be used for fuel can be broken up into hydrogen and oxygen for breathing, of course, water for drinking for Space Colony, so we don't have to lift it off the earth over and over Platinum is abundant on the moon and other rare earths that we have to strip mine and dig, dig very deep in the earth to find and yet we know from Apollo samples and other samples that have come back that it's just lying there waiting for us on the moon. And it's a tremendous opportunity to quit my name the earth and instead take advantage of these these tremendous resources that the solar system presents us. Yeah, there's
a whole universe out there. And so what is what do you think that looks like when you were talking about a lunar colony? And, you know, let's put it however far you want to put it out 20, 3050 years? What does it look like it as a private public partnership? Is it multiple governments getting together? Like, how do you envision that I think
it's going to be a combination of things. I think you'll see private outposts and publicly funded research bases, and there'll be infrastructure that they share. And I would predict it 30 to 50 years. And now you look up at at the moon at night. on the dark side, you'll see lights in various places. advertisement, maybe not that. But certainly the lights of cities and and outposts and basis and it probably will look a lot like the way the 19th century
expansion took place across this country where the government incentives private individuals and private companies by giving them land knew the railroads and so forth, so that they could have an economic incentive invest their own money and take risks.
I want to I want to touch on something, we've only got a little bit left, but I wanted to give you a chance. I feel like these missions involve thousands of people. And so few of them get to, you know, write a book about or share the spotlight, I thought and but they're so important these engineers, researchers, scientists, is there anything you'd like to anybody you'd like to give a shout out to? Or like I feel like these are such important people and we don't hear about them they're toiling with the orbital mechanics you know with their their spiral notebooks and mainframes if I just said like who is it Who are these people you know
spaceflights a team sport, every spaceflight involves very many people, mostly working behind the scenes aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, coders,
tremendous specialties and everything from orbital mechanics to spaceflight medicine. And so, you know, all those teams have leaders and they're very visible, but it's really the team's themselves for all the space flight projects, not just the sexier ones that go to explore the planets, but the ones that are helping us understand our own planet, or the people that are building the first generation space tourism vehicles. I just say, if you know anybody in that industry, pat them on the back. They're making the future well, and
I think that's all our time we have today. But if you want to give a pat on the back, he's actually going to be doing a book signing right next door just after this. That's a it's a 930. So just in a few minutes. Yeah, just yeah. So if you you should check it out. I've been enjoying this book a great deal. And you can ask him a few questions. She was here a little bit and get your book signed. So that'll be right outside. And thank you very much for joining us, Alan. Thank you, Devin. It was a blast. Thanks.